‘Choice’ lecture imparts lessons on indecision

by Lizzie Norgard
WHITMAN COLLEGE PIONEER

Everyone believes that freedom is a good thing. Professor of Social Theory Barry Schwartz, of Swarthmore College, while delivering a lecture on Oct.17 regarding his recent book “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,” did not deny this truism. He did, however, propose a more critical theory for how having a plethora of choices affects the human psyche.

Schwartz began by dissecting the general belief about freedom in affluent Western societies. He called this belief “the official syllogism,” and said that it “is so deeply imbedded in our understanding of how the world works and how people work that it rarely even comes to the level of conscious awareness.”

The official syllogism runs as follows: The highest good in society is freedom, and the more freedom one has in how they live their life, the better their overall welfare. Freedom means having the ability to choose. If more freedom means improved welfare, and more choice means more freedom, then more choice means improved welfare. Thus affluent Western societies believe that the more choices they have, the happier they will be.

Schwartz laid out three problems with the official syllogism and the resulting explosion of choices. “The first effect that it has, paradoxically enough, is that instead of liberating people it paralyzes them,” he said. Schwartz told a story about a psychological experiment conducted in a grocery store in Palo Alto, in which two tables were set up on different days offering jam to sample and buy. One table displayed twenty-four flavors of jam, and the other displayed six. More people went to the table with twenty-four jams and sampled the flavors, but one tenth as many people bought jam. Schwartz concluded that fewer people bought jam when they had more options because they were paralyzed by them—it wasn’t worth the effort of deliberation.

The second problem with having too many options, according to Schwartz, is that when there are lots of options to choose from “the quality of your decision will be impaired.” Schwartz gave the example of speed dating, a match-making event in which singles have 3-8 minute conversations round-robin style with multiple people. Schwartz said, “when you confront people with a lot of options they adopt strategies that simplify the task to manageable proportions, and choosing on the basis of the simplest criteria may or may not be the same as choosing on the basis of the criteria that are most important.” In the match-making example, people often choose partners based on simple and obvious criteria (such as looks), which sometimes leads to regrettable decisions.

Schwartz then posed a third problem, which he considered the most significant: even if you manage to make a choice, and manage to choose well, you may still be dissatisfied with your decision. In theory, people should be happy with decisions they have freely made, but, as Schwartz said, “too many options undermines the satisfaction that people get, even from a good decision.”

He explained this dissatisfaction by describing two distinct aims that people have when making decisions, which he called “maximizing” and “satisficing” (a term he borrowed from psychologist Herbert Simon). One who “maximizes” seeks to choose the best possible thing among the available options and therefore deliberates between all of them. A “satisficer” chooses the first option that meets their predetermined standards, without necessarily considering every possibility.

Schwartz cited a scale on which “maximizing” and “satisficing” traits were measured in people looking for jobs. Schwartz said that those who scored high on the “maximizer” scale “considered more jobs, wanted more options, spent a lot more time looking around at what other people were doing…and got jobs that paid them $7,000 a year more [than satisficers], starting salary.” While maximizers did better, “they were also more pessimistic, anxious, stressed, worried, tired, overwhelmed, regretful and disappointed than satisficers,” said Schwartz. Schwartz concluded that “maximizing is not a recipe for satisfaction with decisions,” regardless of how objectively good the decisions are.

When confronted with a lot of options, people who want to make the best possible choice often dwell on missed opportunities, doubting the decisions they do make. Schwartz said, “It is impossible for people to maintain modest expectations in the face of an indefinitely large set of options.”

On an individual level, Schwartz offered three solutions to the phenomena of indecision and dissatisfaction: Maximize less and satisfice more, take advice from friends, while focusing more on the positive results of your decisions and less on what is disappointing. He also emphasized the importance of close relationships with people for human happiness, and pointed out that relationships are fulfilling despite and even due to the fact that they constrain us.

Junior Rand Biersdorff, who attended the lecture, said in an e-mail, “I found the lecture absolutely riveting. Dr. Schwartz applied terminology and psychological theory to a phenomenon we all recognize intuitively but haven’t synthesized on a conscious level: the paralysis and malcontented-ness one feels when inundated with millions of options.” She also said she “appreciated [Schwartz’s] pragmatic solutions.”

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “‘Choice’ lecture imparts lessons on indecision

  1. kevin

    hello, interesting article… while I’m 12 years old, i can appreciate all the options that i will have in life if i study hard, do my homework and navigate well thru the education system– from jams to jobs. This article influences me to do more so that i will have the opportunity to maximize my choices, which currently are limited now to how to best utilize my time.

  2. another kevin

    (I’m 49 years old) The former Kevin made an astute reference to the utilization of time, which Schwartz apparently does not take into consideration as a significant variable in decision-making. Here’s my thoughts:

    “The official syllogism runs as follows: The highest good in society is freedom,” – really? I thought the highest good is goodness. Libertarians tend to exalt “freedom to . . .” and “freedom from . . .” and while conservatives use the banner of freedom to rally against the intrusions of government in general, and fascism in particular, I would contend that most folks in america consider social benevolence as the highest good –

    “and the more freedom one has in how they live their life, the better their overall welfare.” – Where does this come from? If this were true, we should empty the prisons decriminalize drugs and eliminate all branches of government. –

    “Freedom means having the ability to choose. If more freedom means improved welfare, and more choice means more freedom, then more choice means improved welfare. Thus affluent Western societies believe that the more choices they have, the happier they will be.” – This is classic logical flim-flam: build a straw man and dash it to pieces. I don’t know anyone who believes this. There are so many variables at work in decision-making, (personality, time constraints, risk/reward, chaos aversion, etc.) that to isolate one and attribute all failure to that one variable is poor science.

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